Newsletters I like: Gastro Obscura

Photo courtesy of Marcus Vinicius Morais de Oliveira

October 2nd
The world of obscure livestock

By Alex Mayyasi
Editor of Gastro Obscura

On a summer day in 1951, thousands of chicken aficionados filled a stadium in Arkansas to watch a bird be crowned “the Chicken of Tomorrow.”

This was no beauty contest. Backed by the Department of Agriculture, the competition had one goal: to find a chicken so ample, so blessed with meaty breasts and thighs, that poultry, which was still associated with wealth and prosperity, would become cheap and affordable for every American.

As a band played and the crowd cheered, the winning farmer received a check for his prize chicken, a cross of two varieties. Compared to the scrawny state of chickens at the time, the winning bird’s girth was remarkable. Soon enough, the champion-chicken breed, along with another winner, accounted for the majority of broiler chickens sold in the United States, mostly by two giant corporations, and were bred to become even larger.

But now, generations later, the Chicken of Tomorrow and its peers have muscled out America’s heritage poultry. Across the world and across types of livestock, a similar pursuit of cheap meat has winnowed the genetic pool and eliminated charming idiosyncrasies. Whereas chickens, cows, and pigs once varied regionally (hairy hogs in cold climates, lightly feathered chicks near the equator), the remaining animals are less adaptable and less interesting.

Thankfully, concerned scientists, livestock lovers, and forward-looking farmers are seeking to end the decline. Here’s a look at the world of obscure livestock they’re looking to save, and that we at Gastro Obscura love so much.

Woolly Pigs, Jacked Cows, Adorable Sheep

Photo: CSIGA67/CC BY-SA 2.5

The Mangalica, a pig with distinctly sheep-like wool, nearly disappeared under Soviet policies that prioritized mass production. It has since made a comeback in its native Hungary, where its rich flavor has earned it the moniker the “Kobe beef of pork.”

Photo: Wayne Hutchinson/Farm Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

This jacked cow, the British Blue, was bred for a mutation that causes “double-muscling” and bigger cows. Overselection for the trait leads to health problems, but considerate breeding produces healthy cows that ranchers describe as gentle giants.

Photo: Matt Cardy / Getty Images

The Valais Blacknose sheep, pictured here being adorable, is raised for its meat and carpet-worthy wool. A rare and hardy breed found, until recently, only in certain Swiss villages, its popularity on social media has led to its export abroad.

The Livestock Living at the End of the World

Things get hairy when you plop pigs on a subantarctic island.Read more →

Protecting Critters Across the Globe

National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation
A nondescript building in Fort Collins, Colorado, contains a treasure: nearly 1 million vials of frozen semen from livestock, including farmed fish. Much like a seed bank, the center is a backup, capable of providing the genetic material of endangered or extinct species to farmers or scientists looking for breeds with specific traits, such as the ability to live at high altitude, or notably tender meat.

Kangaroo Island Bee Sanctuary
Are bees livestock? Yes they are! And on Kangaroo Island, Australia, you’ll find a sanctuary that’s home to the world’s only remaining purebred Ligurian bees, which produce a honey once enjoyed by ancient Romans. Strict policies protect the bees from the inter-breeding and disease that led to their disappearance in Europe.

South America’s Swampy Cows
Since it matures slowly, the Pantaneiro cow fell out of favor with Brazil’s ranchers. But conservationists note that Pantaneiros, which happily wade through the tropical wetlands of Pantanal, are the only cow known to breed in flooded terrains—a valuable trait in a warming, increasingly flood-prone world. So they partnered with ranchers to promote a traditional cheese made from Pantaneiro milk, which is strong, similar to mozzarella in taste, and damned tasty when paired with black coffee.

The Cute, Cuddly Origins of Livestock

Photo: Hemis/Alamy

Cows are descended from wild aurochs, now-extinct creatures that roamed Eurasia and were depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings. Multiple civilizations domesticated pigs from wild boars. And chickens emerged from jungle-loving fowls. But humanity’s first livestock hails from the Asian-Pacific Islands.

Described by anthropologist Manvir Singh as “a cross between a cat, a monkey, and a Furby,” the cuscus has provided protein and fur to Pacific Islanders for millennia. While some scholars would quibble with calling them livestock, evidence of islanders bringing them along as they settled new Pacific Islands is challenging our perception of earlier humans as merely hunting and gathering.

More of Gastro Obscura’s Favorite Things

Eat Like an Ancient Roman 🏺
In ancient Rome, an empire-wide network of factories produced garum, the fish sauce that added umami to Roman meals and condiments. The vinegar-makers El Majuelo made their Flor de Garum based on an analysis of residue buried in Pompeii. It only ships within Europe, so as an alternative, you can order Red Boat’s 50 N° fish sauce, which archaeologists consider a good replacement.

Grandma on TV 👵
Grandmothers are revered in the kitchen. Now they have a TV pilot. Hosted by friend of Gastro Obscura Lisa Gross, “From Grandma, With Love” profiles immigrant women who run cooking classes from their homes in NYC. You can stream the pilot on Discovery+, which offers a free trial.

A Most Unusual Wine Made by Monks 🍷
“Made by monks, drank by drunks.” This has long been the reputation of Buckfast, a highly caffeinated fortified wine made by Benedictine monks in Buckfast Abbey and often associated in Scotland with “neds,” a classist term for hooligans from low-income housing developments. Now, improbably, mixologists are using Buckfast to make posh cocktails. A new episode of the BBC’s Food Programme podcast investigates.